A Shared Path Out of the Climate Crisis

two men stand at the Orca Plant in Iceland

Last month the latest IPCC report confirmed what we all knew: that the climate crisis is accelerating dangerously, and the speed at which planetary boundaries are being transgressed will cause untold intensifications of the climate and biodiversity collapse. As the world prepares to gather in Glasgow in November for COP 26, it is clear that we have reached a critical moment. Decisive action must be taken before the situation spirals further out of control.

This week, two broadly different proposals for how to respond were presented, which have  strengths and weaknesses that might offer insight into how we can trace a path out of the environmental crisis.

Orca Plant to Reverse Climate Change?

The Orca Plant in Hellisheiðarvirkjun, 30 kilometres south-east of Reykjavík, opened this week to global press coverage. Orca is the largest “carbon capture” complex yet built. Its owners pledge to “reverse climate change”. And it is a real technological achievement: no one has ever before established a functioning example of this method.

“Orka” is Icelandic for energy, and the plant is designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, transfer it deep underground, and mix it with water so that it mineralises within the basalt bedrock.

The 4000 tonnes of carbon dioxide it will process every year is about the same amount as is emitted by 870 automobiles.

But working at full throttle, it will still only remove the grand total of carbon equivalent to about 250 average Americans. The 4000 tonnes of carbon dioxide it will process every year is about the same amount as is emitted by 870 automobiles. We could find 1000 people in cities to swap their cars for electric cargo bikes, fit them out with helmets, rain gear, and big, secure locks and make a greater climate impact, and still have a lot more money than the €15 million spent on this project.

Techno-optimists may dismiss such calculations as missing the point. Solar panels used to be expensive, as did lithium ion batteries. But with intense engineering improvements and the market forces of scale, both of those once elusive technologies have become easily accessible. The same, it is hoped, will apply to carbon capture.

More fanciful technological fixes proliferate. Some suggest injecting vast quantities of silver iodine into the atmosphere to induce rainfall during droughts. Another plan involves genetically modifying phytoplankton so that these tiny ocean creatures gobble up more carbon. And if none of that works, the billionaire class seem to believe we can just jet off to another planet.

The technological impulse is embedded deep within our culture, because our technological achievements are immense. But imagining everything as a resource to be engineered for our own convenience or profit is a key part of how we created this crisis in the first place. Nature-based solutions always work better. 300 mature trees would store more carbon than the entire Orca plant, and they don’t require you to fabricate steel, transport it to Iceland, and assemble it around vast fans. Who would bet against the Orca Plant one day being seen as the important first step towards an important part of our response to the climate collapse? But equally, who could dispute that equivalent energy and attention invested in natural solutions would offer more immediate impact?

Christians Collaborate on Climate Action

A day before the Orca Plant opened, something happened which sounds like the set up for a bad joke. The Ecumenical Patriarch [of the Eastern Orthodox Church], the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Francis issued a joint statement. It has never happened before that the three faith leaders have come together to speak as one on an issue.

Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy represent well over 1.6 billion people. Christians working together to combat climate change are an immense and therefore powerful demographic.

The letter that was published this week is a fundamental shift in relations between the three Churches and should be of interest to you even if you have no Christian commitment, as it is a significant sociological development. Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy represent well over 1.6 billion people. Christians working together to combat climate change are an immense and therefore powerful demographic.

The statement, called A Joint Message for the Protection of Creation, draws on the shared Scriptures of the individual traditions and the shared context of the pandemic to call people to radically sustainable practices.

This document goes far beyond spiritually benign positive thoughts and it is not an invitation to find God in your local forest park. It is a quite remarkable call for politically potent solidarity. There is a recognition that system change and lifestyle change are the only ways we can slow climate change. The care for creation to which they call us is founded on the fact that “the people bearing the most catastrophic consequences of these [environmental] abuses are the poorest on the planet and have been the least responsible for causing them”.

This is a very different approach to responding to the environmental crisis. There is no technological innovation required; we don’t need rocket-launchers to explore this route. But it is in many ways a more challenging path for humanity than colonising space or technologically capturing carbon. The three Christian leaders call all their congregations to to practice self-restraint amd make sacrifices in their lives for the common good, and to invite everyone – regardless of their religious affiliation – into the collaborative work of caring for the earth we inherited and must pass on.

Finding a Shared Path

Solidarity and integral ecology alone will not avert the catastrophe such that there is no place for technological innovation. Equally, it is not the case that inventions and advances will remedy the processes we have set in motion without the societal shifts and soul-level conversions. We are being called to integrate the different approaches to mitigation.

The hard work of reaching out to people with whom we disagree and finding common cause for collaborative action is much more potent as a reaction to the crises of environmental justice than technocratic policy remedies. The fact that the letter issued this week is the first such shared gesture in almost 1000 years of schism between the faith traditions is a testimony to how difficult we find such paths.

Discerning a shared path, grounded in solidarity while also drawing on technology, conscious of the risk that such innovations sometimes only intensify the problems we have created – this is the best path out of the mess we are in.